What are we to make of the increase in violent deaths in Iraq during June and
July? Is it a sign of a long-term upsurge in violence since the US troop
withdrawal? Who are the culprits? These are all pertinent questions.
begin with, it should be noted that violence in Iraq often follows cyclical
patterns. That is, insurgent groups normally step up their operations as summer
begins, and around the times of religious festivals, when pilgrims (frequently
travelling on foot) are exposed, we can expect upsurges in
Thus, in June, there were waves of bomb attacks targeting Shi’a
pilgrims who were commemorating the death of Moussa al-Kadhim, who was the
greatgrandson of Muhammad.
Therefore, one should be careful in
extrapolating from short-term trends to warn of growing sectarian tensions and a
return to civil war in the near future.
Today, the insurgent groups
responsible for attacks on civilians and a large number of attacks on government
officials are entirely Sunni, since the Shi’a militant groups like the Kataib
Hezbollah have disbanded following the pullout of US forces.
The two main
organizations are al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), which is now virtually an entirely
native force, and the Ba’athist Naqshibandia led by Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, who
is still at large and most recently appeared in a video in April to denounce the
Assad regime and complain of an Iranian- American-Israeli conspiracy taking over
At present, there is no real evidence to suggest either group is
gaining new recruits from Sunni Arabs on the basis of frustration with problems
in the political process. If such an assertion were true, insurgents carrying
out the attacks would surely make their specific grievances clear (e.g. perhaps
demanding from Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad an amnesty for Vice
President Tariq al- Hashemi).
However, there are two ways in which one
can link the current state of Iraqi politics with violence.
analyst Joel Wing of Musings on Iraq suggested to me in a discussion on this
topic, the political impasse can induce frustration in local Sunni Arab
populations such that the insurgents have an easier environment in which to
Hence, said locals might refuse to disclose the
whereabouts of insurgents to the security forces, probably having an attitude
along the lines of “serves them right” against the government and security
forces. In turn, one can add that the tendency toward heavy-handedness on the
part of the Iraqi army and police, which still suffer from major deficiencies in
intelligence gathering on militant activities, only exacerbates this
Second, one should not discount violence between political
factions that accounts for some of the attacks on government officials.
Observers have noted that the nature of such operations – for instance,
assassinations by means of firearms with silencers – points to a picture of
meticulous planning and skill at odds with the more simple car bombs and suicide
bombers of the Naqshibandia and AQI. It is hardly implausible that political
factions have their own hitmen they can deploy against each other in times of
Nevertheless, as Wing also told me, it is important not
to exaggerate the extent of this phenomenon.
Indeed, violence between
political factions probably accounts for only a minor proportion of these
IN FACT, more overt examples of violence between political
factions (e.g. rallying supporters to attack the offices of a rival party) are
also fairly rare, with the most recent notable case actually taking place in the
Kurdistan area in early December between Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party
that is part of the ruling coalition of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and
the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Union. The clashes arose after supporters of
the latter attacked liquor stores, among other businesses owned by Assyrians and
Yezidis in the town of Zakho.
Finally, it should be stressed that in
general, the reduction of AQI’s influence since the advent of the Sons of Iraq
movement has been exaggerated.
Though the group’s power in central Iraq
and Anbar is indeed a shadow of its former self, AQI has always maintained a
strong presence in Mosul, where it behaves like a mafia in extorting money from
businesses and other residents, something that has been going on for years and
gives AQI ample financial means to carry out attacks.
A case-in-point is
the murder of the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul in January or February 2008,
after churches in the city stopped paying jizya – a traditional, extortionist
poll-tax imposed on non-Muslims living under Islamic law – to AQI. It should be
noted that this incident took place even as AQI was suffering major setbacks
Violence has generally stabilized at levels that still
make Iraq a very dangerous place, which in turn creates numerous problems such
as deterring foreign investment, thereby impeding reconstruction efforts and
liberalization of the top-down bureaucracy.
In short, the political
impasse, heavy-handedness of the security forces, and AQI strength in Mosul mean
that overall violence is unlikely to decrease substantially over the coming
years, even as we can put aside media sensationalism that tends to look only at
short-term trends with uninformed talk of a return to a full-blown sectarian
civil war as we saw in 2006.
The writer is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at
the Middle East Forum.